Dystopian short story #1
The Census Makers
Laura knocked on the door.
No answer. No surprise. It was census time after all, time to take the counts.
Get your ducks in a row.
Balance the books.
And once more census denominator Laura Carson found herself crisscrossing streets and tromping through lawns in the hot ass July heat; earning another blister on her thumb from pushing buttons and sore knuckles from knocking on doors, and a more foul mood because of it.
Sure, two months on with ten months off—and all of it paid mind you—is a pretty sweet deal. But it wasn’t like the old days when you just took the counts. These days you worked for it through two months of drudgery. What with the occasionally unruly dog and the even more unruly citizenry with their shitty attitudes and excuses. Oh yeah, and the occasional violence. That’s why Census started arming their agents. Things just kind of evolved from there.
Oh, c’mon already… “Census!”
But at least she was almost finished. This year Laura had drawn a smaller district with only 50 houses, and she had just wrapped up number 49.
Last one, thank God!
Standing there in the cool shade of the house’s front porch, she didn’t mind so much that no one answered right away. She knocked on the door again, harder this time causing the scab on her index finger knuckle to open up. She spat on the wound and wiped her hand on her green jumper leaving a tiny dark smear next to several others. The flair of pain evaporated what little shred of good mood she had left.
“Goddamn it—CENSUS!” she yelled louder.
Still no answer.
They want it like this? Fine by me. She tucked the electronic clipboard under her arm, turning around to shout at her partner in the truck.
“Roy, I need the master key!” The name was a joke. The ‘master key’ was a six inch diameter steel pipe about a meter long, filled with concrete and finished off with two steel rings welded on to serve as handles. The master key could open just about anything.
Roy heaved his girth down from the hover-van, making the vehicle sag for a moment to skirt the pavement before rising again on its cushion of air. He unlocked the rack mounted to the side of the vehicle, and gripped the steel rings in both meaty fists to lift the tool free. Then he trundled up to the porch, the master key bouncing on his gut. He was wheezing when he got there.
“Trouble?” she smirked.
Roy grunted something dismissive followed by, “Move it sweet-cheeks.”
He swung the pipe backward once and then forward again.
The frame splintered as the door swung open, coming off one of its hinges.
“Thank you, Mister Sarko.”
“Anytime, sugar. If you need help in there, let me know.”
He finished with a leer. Laura answered with a sarcastic smile and a middle finger salute.
“Bitch, one of these days you’ll be beggin’ for it,” he grunted, while lifting up the master key to rest on one shoulder. Then he waddled back to the hover-van. Laura watched him the whole way to make sure he did.
Alone—and in an empty house—with Roy Sarko? Hell, alone anywhere with that pig. She would’ve laughed if the thought didn’t make her want to puke. Roy Sarko was a convicted rapist who just happened to live in a high-quota district; and since California didn’t have a death penalty, Roy went on as normal. Or whatever constituted normal for remorseless shit-bags like him. The state called it ‘rehabilitation’, but at least it kept him on the never-to-be-promoted list. He could drive and work the master key: barely a job, it was more like low paying servitude for the next twenty years. The funny thing (or not) though, was that Laura always felt like she was the one doing the time.
With the door open, Laura crossed the threshold and went inside the house. It was a little bit dusty but orderly and obviously lived in. The only problem was that it was also empty of people.
“God, if only,” she sighed, looking around. Being under count would be a welcome novelty: no extra paperwork and an early vacation. She checked the read-out on her clip board.
District H: 50 houses
Census: 206 of 210
She went upstairs: one master bedroom and two for the children, plus two bathrooms and assorted linen closets. Nothing but furniture, clothes, toys—the usual stuff—and an attic panel in the hallway ceiling, the kind with a rope that pulled down a step ladder. Deep down she knew there would be no one up there either, but she went up anyway. Census paid well, so you did your job. The air was thick, hot and dusty, but besides a few old boxes and about a thousand spider webs, also uninhabited.
Downstairs and out to the backyard: swing set, patio furniture. A garden shed: one mower, some grass seed, and an assortment of random gardening supplies.
Think: where’d they go—on vacation maybe? She cued up the clipboard’s display again and touched her way through a few menus to be rewarded with a big fat goose egg: no entries for state travel permits had been issued.
Check the obits—why not? Laura smirked at that. Maybe the entire family was victims of a mass murder. Beep-boop-beep. Nope. No luck there either.
Back into the house and a quick inspection of the kitchen: the fridge was full, food still within expiration dates. She made a note of that, too. Then she grabbed a can of soda, popped it open and took a seat for a much deserved cool drink. The clipboard beeped happily as she went over everything up until now. Sure, she had some trouble with a few citizens—you always did—but she got them sorted out. Yesterday a family had even admitted they were actually two families living in the same house. No marriage permit of course.
Laura tallied the one and ignored the other.
“Not my district, not my problem,” she told them. Let someone else deal with it.
But this house was a problem. It was missing four people. If only the place had been condemned or boarded up she could’ve written it off, job done. But the database showed nothing unusual and this place looked currently lived in.
“Figures,” she muttered aloud. So, where were they? At a neighbor’s maybe? Padding numbers in another district? This would mean paperwork, she just knew it, and here she was a week early getting finished, too. A week early and a week less of her partner’s sick entreaties for whatever passed as intimacy for a scumbag like him. She drained the last of the soda and grabbed another, popping the top and taking a long cold pull that made her burp suddenly.
Think. California houses don’t have cellars.
Garage? This house didn’t have one.
Damnit. That left only one solution: she’d have to toss the place. Laura stood and began the inevitable chore of opening every cupboard. After that she’d be rolling back carpet and moving furniture to look for trap doors—standard procedure. Shame to trash a nice house, she thought, but oh well. She started with the downstairs closets and linens, opening every kitchen cupboard door and drawer, dumping the contents on the floor: pots and pans, silverware, and finally the drawers themselves. She checked the oven next, and then started on the pantry and found nothing.
Except for the faintest brush of cool air.
She cursed and grabbed a pantry shelf to pull on it, halfway expecting nothing to happen, and then a bit surprised when the whole set of shelves, laden with soup cans, cereal, cookies, crackers, and all, swung outward like a door. Behind it was a small passage hewn into the earth complete with a ladder leading down at a steep angle. Laura flicked on her clipboard and climbed down.
The passage was dark, so she felt along the cool earthen walls, fingers skimming over wooden beams bracing the recent excavation until her hands felt nothing but air: a larger chamber. The glow from her clipboard’s tiny monitor showed a hard packed dirt floor and some cots along the wall, with some shelves stocked with canned food. She held the clipboard out and panned around.
Reflections of eyes in the dark: two adults and at least three children.
Tiny gasps from tiny mouths.
“Please!” a man’s voice cried out, nearly causing Laura to jump back. Even in the low light she could see he was holding something: maybe a knife or a zip gun. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Census Maker, hold!” she commanded, one hand resting on her sidearm. She approached slowly and found a family huddled together: a man, a woman with an infant in her arms, plus two kids—one of which held a kitten that mewled and fidgeted.
“Damn thing probably isn’t registered either,” Laura chuffed.
“We’re sorry,” said the littlest girl holding the kitten.
Laura ignored them for a moment and glanced at her board’s read out again.
District H: 50 houses
Census: 206 of 210
And five people in front of her.
“One over. God damn it.”
“Please!” the mother whimpered.
Sarko’s voice erupted in her earpiece, “What’s the hold up, candy snatch?”
No one else could hear him but it made Laura flush. She looked at the little girls. Have to think fast. This was going to be a mess. Not to mention the extra paperwork.
“We got a problem down here—check the kitchen,” she finally said.
“A problem, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said. “And hurry the fuck up.”
She kept her eyes glued to the man, while her peripheral vision handled the others. “Nobody move an inch, you got that?”
After a long few minutes, she heard Roy’s heavy footsteps above and then his struggling to get down the ladder, each rung squeaking protest at the weight. He fumbled his way in the dark, making sure he accidentally brushed against her.
“Sweetmeat,” he grunted.
Laura could feel his hot breath hovering just beside her. She tried to convince herself it was her or the woman he was looking at, but she had a sick feeling it was neither.
“Eyes on,” she ordered. “They’re one over.”
“Which one?” he chuckled.
“Funny, shit head,” she said, pulling her weapon free, “the baby, obviously.”
“Fucking breeders—so who’s the unlucky winner?”
“Pick one,” she said.
Sarko stepped forward, rubbing a fat hand over his fat chin. “How about some fun first?”
The woman pulled her children closer.
He never got his answer. In one smooth motion Laura had the barrel to his temple and squeezed off a round. The weapon discharged like a thunderbolt in that enclosed space, spraying his brains against the earthen wall and ceiling. She watched his body crumple like a demolished building.
Their ears were ringing, but after the gasps and the initial shock began to ebb from her captive audience, it was all ‘thank you, thank you’.
“We’re not done yet,” she said flatly. “You’re still one person over this district’s population limit.” She holstered her weapon and reached down to retrieve her dead partner’s I.D. badge. She tossed it to the man. He caught it—and dropped the zip gun he was holding.
Son of a…
The man started to mouth an apology, but Laura cut him off.
“Lucky for you though, there’s been a recent opening.”
The woman said: “I don’t understand.”
“You’re getting a divorce.” Her eyes shifted back to her husband. “And I get a new partner—right, ‘Roy’?” Laura paused and patted her holster. “Unless you want me to make census the real way?”
“Good.” Laura tapped in the info and the clipboard beeped in the affirmative. “210 of 210 accounted for.” She barely glanced at Sarko’s corpse. “Now, leave that here and bury in this bunker; and for fuck’s sake keep that cat indoors.”
She headed for the ladder after a chorus of murmured promises and head-nodding.
“Almost forgot: Census thanks you for your cooperation.”
Then she climbed up into the light.
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